Culture

Tales From the Crypt

Feature: What I heard listening to Martin O’Malley in a dorm basement

Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley plays guitar / Martin O'malley's Instagram

It only dawns upon me when I reach the door. McCarthy Hall at Georgetown University is not a large speaking venue or even a lecture hall. It is a dorm, and tonight Martin O’Malley is supposed to be speaking in a lounge on its bottom floor. The National Press Club must be booked.

Still, the size of the crowd is not discouraging. When I walk in I see eight rows of 20 chairs, most of which fill up soon with hoodies, flannels in colors other than red, T-shirts, and the other items of apparel that you forget people wear when you graduate and work somewhere that is not a tech company.

I wish I weren’t wearing my press badge. When I sit down multiple event staffers come up to me to say that only students can ask questions. Could I have passed? My chinos are about six sizes bigger than those of the kid sitting next to me, and my sweater has a small baby-food spot on it.

O’Malley is supposed to start at 6:45 p.m. At 7:05 we are still waiting. I start looking around the room. A guy behind me is talking about a Twitter start-up. The kid next to me is tapping his left foot violently up and down, hands jerking spasmodically as he refreshes Facebook over and over again on his phone. He must really like O’Malley.

"It’s a really great company," I hear from the back.

A woman tells us the governor will be here shortly. Then a guy who works for O’Malley comes in and steals a chair from the back row.

O’Malley is introduced by an undergraduate who tells us he is "a particularly outspoken fan of Gov. O’Malley’s." He prattles on in a language best described as résumése about all the valuable things he has learned going to talks like this one.

Finally we begin. Immediately I notice that while the two moderators have little bottles of water in front of them, to O’Malley’s right there is a red Solo-brand plastic cup. I wonder what’s in it.

I am here for two things tonight, campaign gossip and folk jams. Most of what O’Malley has to say over the next hour and 40 minutes—about the importance of bringing people together, about how much he was inspired by working on Gary Hart’s campaign in ’84 and his time running for city council and the state senate—is very boring. But on the gossip front, he does not disappoint. More than once he talks about what the Democrats would do if they were "a functional party," which, I gather, means that they are not one now.

"Do you believe that the DNC had its thumb on the scale and that the system was rigged against you as a candidate?" one of the moderators asks.

"I wouldn’t say the DNC," O’Malley says, "but I would say the chair." He goes on to say unequivocally that Debbie Wasserman Shultz fixed the debate schedule, adding that people in the party who questioned her were told they were "out of order."

"On that day when they came out with the schedule and said that there were only going to be four debates and that most of them were going to be on Saturday or Sunday night hidden by NFL playoff games or the like—that’s when I knew our goose was cooked."

O’Malley is equally brutal about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore who, I recall, did not endorse him. He tells us that when he was walking around the city during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, "A lot of people said, ‘Mayor, where’s the mayor?’" During the same period he suddenly remembered that for the first time in 15 years he had no security detail. "It’s like the movie Airplane: you picked a bad time to give up crack." He jokes about getting accosted by "local street pharmacists" and a guy he thought was a mugger who turned out to be a big fan. He also talks about how, when he was mayor, the presidents of Johns Hopkins and Loyola begged him to revoke filming privileges for The Wire.

His best road story concerns an event held during a snowstorm in Des Moines. One person attended. "His name was Kevin. He was really excited to see me. We spent a good half-hour together, and while it is true that he left uncommitted, I called him the next day at 2:00 p.m. He committed to me then on the phone to caucus for me. And to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, he did. He was kind of funny about it. He said, ‘I don’t want anything from you except to be ambassador to the Netherlands.’"

At one point a priest shows up in the back of the room, the kind with a windbreaker on instead of a cassock. He and O’Malley greet each other and start joking about the weather in California, where the former is being transferred.

"I am marrying his daughter," the priest tells us.

Come again?

"I am presiding at the marriage of his daughter."

The audience questions are okay. When one of the students mentions the size of the 2016 presidential field, he points out that there were "only three" Democrats, which is very unfair to Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. One girl cheekily asks O’Malley what his ideal cabinet position would be.

"Ever since I was a little boy I have come to know and love the living systems of the Chesapeake Bay—the great blue heron, the osprey, the crabs, the terrapin. And so the ideal cabinet position for me would be secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources."

Just before 9:00 p.m. we are told that we are out of time. I am getting ready to turn off my recorder and leave when I hear one of the moderators say the word "guitar." I run up to the front and sure enough, there it is: a starburst-colored Fender acoustic strapped across O’Malley’s torso. When he starts playing I don’t even mind that it’s not an original composition:

We should run in the forest
We should dance in the stream
We should sing, we should laugh
We should love, we should dream
We should stare at the stars
And not just at screens
Do you know what I’m saying?
Do you know what it means
To sing, sing at the top of your voice?

This is a truly magical thing.

When he’s finished I see that virtually everybody in the room is standing up. The cheers and applause continue for a long time. I can taste the enthusiasm, the optimism, the unity. At last, Martin O’Malley has brought us together.